Tuesday, December 5, 2017

A Closer Look at Rapid Infiltration Basins

One of the projects I work on keeps me regularly visiting the Turfgrass Research Envirotron during summer. This summer the Envirtron’s outdoor area was a bevy of activity and building. Upon inquiry, Envirotron Biological Scientist Natasha Restuccia informed me that the build involved a rapid infiltration basin trial and that Dr. Travis Shaddox was the researcher to speak to for more. A few weeks later during a campus visit, Dr. Shaddox agreed to an interview with IrriGator about the project.

Dr. Travis Shaddox
What is the objective of this study?
TS: The project is funded by Southwest Florida Water Management District. The objective is to determine how can rapid infiltration basins (RIB) be amended to greater enhance the denitrification of nitrogen from effluent water. RIBs are areas of land (quite large in some cases, 5 acres or more) where effluent water is pumped back into the ground water. In that process, the physics behind it is that any nitrogen in the effluent water will be denitrified out. They want to know how we can amend this system so that we enhance that denitrification. The second component would be how does that system that removes nitrogen leaching compare with home lawns and spray fields? Which of these systems – spray fields, lawns or rapid infiltration basins – are the most effective at reducing nitrate leaching into the ground water?

Was there a greenhouse phase to this project?
TS: We had a greenhouse phase that was conducted in Fort Lauderdale that looked at a factorial design of many amendments – 64 columns and a manifold identical to the one we’re doing in the field. In the greenhouse we were looking at which of these amendments are most effective at reducing nitrate leaching. From the results of that greenhouse phase we selected the most effective and that’s what you see out at the Envirotron now.

Which amendments advanced from the greenhouse to field phase?
TS: What we’re dealing with is basically a bioreactor – which is a system designed to greatly enhance the microbial activities responsible for denitrification. How do we do that? We end up applying treatments that have large quantities of soluble carbon, which generally is the limiting factor in microbial growth. I’m not a microbiologist, but the literature indicates that if you add soluble carbon to certain systems you’ll see a reduction in nitrate leaching because it’s denitrifying. So the thought was let’s try this with sawdust, limestone, and biochar.


Rapid infiltration basins and lawns at the Envirotron 
We took those three amendments and then did a factorial. So we’re dealing with each individual one and then all the combinations of those three amendments and then the control which is sand. The amendments that were most effective were those containing sawdust. The amendments that did not contain sawdust had very little influence on reducing nitrate leaching. The treatments that we ended up pulling out into the field because we have such limited space are sawdust, sawdust/limestone, and sawdust/biochar. And then of course the control (sand) as well as st. augustine and bahia lawns.


How long do you anticipate this will be in the field?
TS: Well, it’s supposed to start now (summer) and it’s going to run for two years. It has to run 24 hours a day at a very very low flowrate (up to 10mL a minute) and it has to do that non-stop for two years. There are cycles when it’s flooding and cycles where it’s drying – floods for a week, dries for a week, non-stop 24 hours a day for two years straight. 


Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Florida Sinkholes Explained

By Eban Bean

Since Hurricane Irma, several sinkholes have developed around Alachua County and Florida, many in infiltration basins. An infiltration basin is sometimes also referred to as a dry retention pond or basin. You can find these in many residential and commercial areas where soils are sandy and the water table is not near the surface. Western Alachua County has hundreds of these.

Sinkholes are common in Florida, often forming after heavy rains. A popular video (see below) explains sinkhole formation, but there’s more to consider with development and stormwater management.



Karst Talk
Weak acids dissolve karst, CaCO3. Karst refers to topographic features where the subsurface is dissolved by surface or groundwater. This leaves large openings that allow water to move very quickly through the material. Karst is not unique to Florida and can be found in many parts of the US and around the world. Karst topography and sinkholes are naturally occurring.

Infiltrated rainfall leaches organic acids from surface that naturally dissolves Florida karst. Acid rain can accelerate this. Eventually, voids develop and overlying soil is not supported, collapsing at the surface. In well drained, undeveloped landscapes infiltration occurs across the entire area, uniformly except in low lying areas. When urbanized, runoff is conveyed from impervious areas commonly into dry infiltration basins. Several times more water is now infiltrating through the bottom of the basin, compared to before the area was developed. The acids in rainfall or from the landscape are focused in a much smaller area, accelerating dissolving CaCO3. Increased infiltration volumes also accelerate erosion of overlying soils as the karst void develops.

Sustainable Solutions
Sinkhole in Land O' Lakes, FL - Summer 2017 (image via NYT)
Sinkholes are often ‘fixed’ by filling them with concrete to stabilize the soil and geology below. Green infrastructure (GI) and low impact development (LID) distribute infiltration in developed landscape, using it more effectively. Examples of GI & LID: permeable pavement, bioretention, swales, cisterns, downspout disconnects, and infiltration trenches. Several local governments have incorporated LID practices into recent updates to stormwater programs. The water management districts are generally in support of it as well. The big hurdle is mainstreaming it into the engineering and design process. The first step in that direction is showing examples of these types of practices and projects where they not only perform well, but are cost effective, and easily maintained, compared to the conventional approach to land development.

Green infrastructure examples
We will be putting out a new series of EDIS documents and short videos that cover individual practices in the next few months. We are also working with developers to implement LID and green infrastructure into their projects, and evaluating the effectiveness of these practices. In the future we expect to offer continuing education for engineers and landscape architects on these subjects. UF/IFAS works with developers, government officials, and researchers on solutions for a more sustainable Florida future.


Tuesday, November 14, 2017

My Week with the Irrigation Industry: An E3 Report Back

By Justice Diamond

Experience, exposure and education are the three tenets of Irrigation Foundation’s E3 Learner Program. This is accomplished by inviting selected students to take part in a week of course work and networking during the annual Irrigation Show and Education Conference. 2017’s E3 Class included 28 students and 2 instructors from 17 states. IrriGator asked UF-ABE masters student Justice Diamond to report back on his E3 experience in Orlando, Florida.

E3 Learner Justice Diamond and industry reps 
My focus
The focus of my graduate work is to develop best management practices and deliver those to farms throughout the Suwannee and lower Suwannee basins in North Florida. What I’m working on specifically is to develop an app for irrigation scheduling for corn.
Suwanne River Basins (USGS)
My advisors Drs. Migliaccio and Dukes encouraged me to apply when they saw the opportunity arise and I went ahead and applied. The courses I selected for E3 were Landscape Water Management and Planning and Center Pivot Design. I’m really interested in Center Pivot technology and was especially looking forward to learning more about that.

The Big Week
My E3 experience was very positive. The highlight of the week for me was getting to know other people - having conversations about what they’re doing, the research they’re doing, and having conversations with people in the industry about how they perceive what the industry is going to look like in the future and what they want out of students. 
The least enjoyable part was how long classes were. The teachers were very good, but with an eight hour class there actually isn’t a lot of time to go see the exhibits and I think that part could be condensed. Nevertheless, having an in depth discussion with someone who lives and breathes center pivots I learned a whole lot more. In that sense it was very educational.

Sponsors like The Toro Company ensure the success of the E3 Program
Takeaway
Thank you to the Irrigation Foundation for the opportunity to participate in E3. Meeting people who are all about irrigation, it can only benefit me because that’s what I work with, too. I can only learn and grow from their experiences. My advice to eligible students in 2018: definitely apply! There’s nothing you can lose from the experience and you’ll only learn and meet people who will help you out in the long run.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Looking Ahead: Irrigation Show and Education Conference 2017

Next week irrigation industry professionals from all walks will descend on Orlando, FL, for Irrigation Show and Education Conference 2017. The largest irrigation-focused event of the calendar year, it is as advertised, part product expo (everything you can imagine and more) and part conference - academic presentations, training seminars and certification courses/exams. Best of all for our UF-ABE researchers specializing in irrigation, it’s only a 2 hour drive away.


Research Showcase
UF-ABE research will be featured in both the agriculture and landscape sessions of the Technical Program at Irrigation Show. PhD candidate Maria Zamora is presenting an overview of irrigation and nutrient best management practices in corn. Research associate Bernard Cardenas will discuss recent work pertaining to the EPA WaterSense pressure regulating spray sprinkler body specification

Dr. Michael Dukes will focus on finds from a multi-year Orange County (FL)-based smart irrigation technology study. And Dr. Kati Migliaccio is presenting on rainfall data resources for use in Florida.

E3 Learners
Once again this year I’ll be collaborating with the Irrigation Foundation on digital content. We hope to shine a light on the E3 Learners Program, which selects students from across the country to attend the Irrigation Show, complete coursework and network with established industry pros. This year’s Learner class is comprised of 30 students from 17 different states! Young people are the future of the industry, and the Irrigation Foundation is doing their best to welcome them into the fold.
I’ll also be live tweeting throughout show week. Catch me @IrriGatorUF and follow/tweet along with all the show goings-on at #IrrigationShow.

See you there?
If Irrigation Show 2017 can draw even a sliver of Florida’s sizable green industry/water sector it will be another successful event. If you’re reading this locally/regionally and you’re not sure about making the trek to Orlando this November, take Dr. Dukes' advice: “Just do it! Especially if you are in Florida - this is a great opportunity close to home to see the latest and greatest in irrigation products and tech! It won’t be back for at least several years.

Hear Bringing Water To Life Podcast's Irrigation Show episode:
Listen to "Episode 39 - 2017 Irrigation Show Preview" on Spreaker.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

A WaterSmart Innovations 2017 Report Back

By Michael Dukes

WaterSmart Innovations is a can’t miss meeting for me because it is the single meeting of the many meetings I attend annually that focuses on water conservation. For me that means irrigation water conservation, but the meeting also covers indoor water conservation. It’s a good chance to let people know some of our latest results and to learn what types of research and implementation is happening with regard to irrigation water conservation in other areas of the country.
Given our proximity to the tragedy on the Las Vegas strip there was a somber feeling and mood to the beginning of formal sessions. We observed a moment of silence for respect to the victims. Doug Bennett, program chair, sent out a message regarding the tragedy. To sum it up he encouraged us to carry on in our small way to make the world a better place.
In the Audience
I chose sessions related to irrigation water-use; specifically about reducing peak demand through the use of smart controllers, education and or landscape modification. These are all topics we work on and I wanted to see the latest implementation from across the country. It’s noteworthy that smart controllers are no longer new and niche products. They are being implemented widely across the U.S. and many people are familiar at least in general what they are. Just a few years ago they were “new” and we had to explain what they were to people.

At the Podium
I was also tasked with presenting our work on the pressure regulating spray head (PRB) testing that was used by the EPA WaterSense program to develop their new spray sprinkler body specification. I feel it went well considering it was laden with technical details (I tried to trim as much as possible, but it’s a technical subject at the end of the day) and may have been boring to some non-tech folks. 
I got a number of technical questions and as a follow up met with some folks from California (CA). The CA Energy Commission is researching appliances for energy efficiency and water efficiency is directly related. In the near future (2019) they will have requirements for PRBs. I understand that non-PRBs will not be sold in CA after some transition date in the future. We may have the opportunity to do some more PRB testing in the lab to answer some of their questions. In fact a project proposal is currently being prepared!
Take Away
There were many good talks. Personally I was very interested in the talk by Joanna Endter-Wada about extension working with utilities in Utah to provide water consumption information to consumers. By understanding their detailed seasonal irrigation patterns and delivering targeted educational messages, they were able to significantly reduce over-irrigation. Excellent example of extension impacting stakeholders!

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Researching Water Conservation Strategies with Dr. Mackenzie Boyer

This past summer Mackenzie Boyer successfully defended her PhD thesis and completed her work at UF-ABE. Dr. Boyer was the rare graduate student who returned to school following a stint in the professional world as a consulting engineer. As part of the Dukes research team she published the first journal article documenting water-savings in Florida-Friendly Landscape-certified (FFL) homes. Her work assessing effectiveness of outdoor watering restrictions in Florida was also novel terrain. On her most recent visit to Florida, Dr. Boyer agreed to speak with IrriGator about her research and more.

Dr. Mackenzie Boyer on defense day
What was the focus of your PhD research?
MB: The focus has been studying watering billing records to determine people’s irrigation habits in the Tampa Bay Water region (the SWFWMD area) trying to understand individual customer use for irrigation and then to also understand customer responses to irrigation conservation measures. So looking historically at how well the Florida-Friendly Landscaping Program has done, and how well water restrictions have done and then also projecting into the future how well could a utility do if they were to adopt different conservation strategies.

You came back to graduate school from the professional world. How do you feel this informed your perspective as a student?
MB: The first part of my career focused a lot more on the smaller details of water treatment and water system designs, but what was missing was more of the planning aspect – the big picture. I recognized what was missing in the work that I was doing with water and that’s one of the reasons why I went back to school. A great thing about this project is that we’re working directly with Tampa Bay Water and SWFWMD and the utilities. I feel like we’re impacting the supply side of water more so with our research now.

Dr. Boyer's area of focus in Florida
You recently relocated from Florida to Arizona. Do you get a sense that people relate to water differently out West?
MB: They do relate to it differently. Xeriscapes are much more popular there than FFL is here. But there are still a lot of homeowners that have turfgrass in the desert where you need to put 7 or 8 feet of water on your landscape during the course of the year. I think there is an appreciation of the amount of water that goes into a landscape in that alternative landscapes are accepted at a much larger scale. But for the people who choose to have turfgrass there isn’t the concern about water conservation or the right ways to irrigate your landscape.

The Dukes program tends to attract and develop really skilled water researchers. Do you have any insight as to why?
MB: This is a very important problem in residential water use. 50% of the potable water that goes to homes in the US ends up on people’s landscapes. This is a large area of potential conservation and the research that this group is doing can address an immediate need for better ways to conserve our potable water.

Dr. Mackenzie Boyer circa 2013

Currently you are prioritizing raising your family, but looking ahead to when you return to the work force how would you describe your ideal job?
MB: I hope to work in some area of academia or some area where I’m working directly with utilities. I’d really like to be helping inform utilities on their customers’ irrigation use and methods of conservation that would be applicable to their customers. The type of work that I did using water billing records, a lot of utilities are doing. There is a growing amount of data available to utilities and trying to help them to use that data to affect their water demand would be ideal.

There seems to be a lot of interesting work being done at Arizona State University and some of the cities like the city of Phoenix and the City of Scottsdale. Hopefully I can join some of their work and be able to contribute to it. 

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Looking Ahead to WaterSmart Innovations 2017

Next week researchers, utility personnel and other water-use professionals converge on Las Vegas, NV, for 2017’s WaterSmart Innovations Conference (WSI). UF-ABE will be present in the form of two researchers from the Dukes group. Here is a look at what they will present at the event and other talks we are looking forward to learning more about.

#GatorGood
UF’s contribution to this year’s conference focuses on irrigation technology. Research Associate Bernard Cardenas is presenting on the effectiveness of soil moisture sensor technology when used in residential irrigation systems on reclaimed water. Dr. Michael Dukes will discuss recent work on the pressure regulating spray head testing that was used by the EPA WaterSense Program to develop their new spray sprinkler body (SSB) specification. Did the high-nutrient content in reclaimed water interfere with soil moisture readings? Does SSB pressure regulating capacity vary at different flow rates? All will be revealed at WSI!

Sessions and More Sessions
WSI always offers a host of informative presentations. As Dr. Dukes said: “It’s a good chance to let people know some of our latest results and to learn what types of research and implementation is happening with regard to irrigation water conservation in other areas of the country.” Noteworthy talks this year range from water reuse to social media marketing to smart irrigation technology. Here are some sessions we are excited about:
  • Rainwater and Graywater Myth Busters
    Patrick Dickinson, Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Dallas
  • A Wild West Tale: Debunking the Myth That Conservation Increases Rate - Candice Rupprecht, Tucson Water
  • You Can’t Play Soccer in a Perennial Bed: The Case for Turf Sustainable Landscape -Paul Johnson, Utah State University for Water Efficient Landscaping
  • How We Got 10,000 Facebook Followers - Clint Wolfe, Texas A&M Agrilife Water University
  • WaterSense in Jeopardy: Saving the EPA Water Labeling Program - Mary Ann Dickson, Alliance for Water Use Efficiency
  • Water Conservation in Urban Communities: How the SNWA Does It - Jared Bilberry, Southern Nevada Water Authority 

WaterSmart Innovations always shares presentation pdf files at the end of conference week. Stay tuned for that and, whether you are attending or not, make sure to follow and contribute to conference goings-on on Twitter using #WSI2017.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Reporting Back from the Primer Simposio de Investigaciòn Agrìcola Latinoamericana in Honduras

Earlier this month UF-ABE PhD Candidate Maria Zamora traveled to Central America to present her research at the first ever Simposio de Investigacion Agricola Latinoamericana. Ms. Zamora studies how nutrients and water interplay in the soil profile in agricultural settings. The work she presented at the symposium was titled: Using soil moisture sensors to monitor irrigation in corn production in Florida. Upon returning from her travels, Ms. Zamora spoke to IrriGator about her experience.

How did you get invited to present at the Simposio de Investigacion Agricola in Universidad Zamorano?
MZ: A former graduate student from UF, Dr. Emmanuel Torres-Quezada, was hired as a professor at Zamorano. He has different ideas about how to collaborate with universities around the world so he developed this symposium, which is the very first symposium in Zamorano focused on how we can use technology to improve production in different agricultural crops.

What can you tell us about your symposium experience?
MZ: It was a one day symposium and the idea was to present to growers, students and faculty ongoing research that arrives at solutions using technology. For example, my talk was about how we can use soil moisture sensors to determine when and how to irrigate, and how we can translate that into water-savings and nitrogen leaching reductions to avoid the environmental impacts of nitrogen leaching.

The idea was to demonstrate how research can be applied and how we can help growers using different technology. We covered topics like irrigation, using bio-fertilizers, and using different types of materials to reduce contamination with plastics.
Maria Zamora presents her research at Universidad Zamorano
Any talk you were especially interested in?
MZ: I really liked one talk from a Zamorano faculty member - Dr. Emmanuel Torres-Quezada. He is trying to adopt practices developed during his dissertation here at UF to conditions in Honduras. He works with optimizing early yield in strawberry production. They are trying to find ways to acclimate plants, or bring them in acclimated, to reduce inputs but still achieve high yields. It’s ongoing research but it’s interesting how they are using strategies that worked here in other places like Honduras.

Maria Zamora uses Sentek soil mositure probes in her work 
How was your talk received?
MZ: There was lots of interest in the project and how it was performed. Water and fertilizer is an issue not just in Florida but other places. One researcher approached me later asking about reducing nitrogen leaching in a soil like theirs, which is completely different. I mentioned to her that sensors can be helpful for monitoring how nutrients are leached into the soil profile; however, they can use simpler techniques like measuring for nitrogen in their runoff if leaching is suspected. Using the same principles in my presentation it was easy for me to explain to her how she can help growers visualize that they are losing nutrients.

Are there plans to continue this symposium in the future?
MZ: People were very engaged and the feedback was very good so I believe they will try to do it again next year or the following year. That’s the main goal. Since this was the first one they wanted to be sure people were interested. It turned out well. Hopefully it will be a channel of communication between the university, students, faculty, and growers so everyone can have research-based feedback. All the research was evidence-based and then translated into how it could be applied. It was a good breakdown of research and extension – bringing research-backed findings to the people in a way that can be applicable.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

2017 HERS Leadership Institute: An Inside Look with Dr. Kati Migliaccio

This summer UF-ABE professor Dr. Kati Migliaccio traveled to Pennsylvania for two weeks of intensive training at Bryn Mawr College. Dr. Migliaccio took part in one of HERS' Leadership Institutes for women in higher education. As one training participant shared on Twitter: “There is such a need for leadership and women in leadership in higher ed.” IrriGator approached Dr. Migliaccio to speak about her experience at #HERSBrynMawr17 and she kindly agreed.

Image via @HERSInstitutes
Can you tell us about your two week training experience at Bryn Mawr?
KM: The event was the 2017 HERS Training at Bryn Mawr. There are 3 locations for the training each year. One is at Wellesley, one is in Denver, and one is in Bryn Mawr. Three other UF women will attend HERS in 2017. The two weeks are focused on providing women in academics with different experiences to help them excel in their careers. Topics focus on basic knowledge skills such as accounting, but also include professional development skills such as speaking, dealing with difficult situations, and negotiating.

Dr. Kati Migliaccio
How does one get invited or become eligible for this training?
KM: Every institution does it differently. There’s a history with some institutions and their relationship with HERS. UF has a long history and the Provost Office has supported women attending HERS for many years (thank you!). Your supervisor or your dean can nominate you, or you can self-nominate when the call for nominations is released. Nominations are reviewed at the UF level; candidates are selected to apply to HERS for acceptance into the program.

What academic disciplines would you say were represented in your training?
KM: The majority of people at Bryn Mawr 2017 were from small liberal arts colleges, but there were also several people from large land-grant institutions. This year they had a STEM program and about half of the Bryn Mawr women were in STEM disciplines. The STEM program within HERS included special breakouts for STEM attendees where STEM issues and speakers were highlighted.
Specifically, were there topics covered that you felt you can immediately apply in your academic work?
KM: There were many topics! We focus so much on our science, or our discipline, that we don’t think about some of the other pieces that could help us do a better job. Examples are basic negotiation strategies, forming working partnerships, and reframing. Also, there were personal discussions on how to manage your time: how to create enough time and not feel guilty about taking time off work for a vacation or for family needs. We also covered how to get your point across through what you say - how to take your value system and move your value system into your conversations so people understand where you’re coming from and the reasoning behind your decisions.

There was also really good advice on finances. How to manage for retirement. And, how universities are being funded and how that’s likely to change. Some topics were really outside of the scope of your disciple but more those pieces that surround it and can either enhance your program or create more of a struggle for your program. 

One of the things that I hope to start to do is to allocate time on my calendar to look at bigger picture issues. For example looking at what’s happening nationally as far as education – and what the research funding future may be. I also hope to spend more time learning about the university system to better engage in activities that interest me such as improving graduate education.
Having attended a HERS training is it something you would recommend to women in academia eligible to attend?
KM: HERS is very specific for women and half of our curriculum was based on inclusive excellence. Whether or not other women would benefit from attending would depend on their future goals. Women interested in learning about or becoming involved in inclusive excellence would greatly benefit from this program. If you’re more interested in maybe going into the budget part of the university, or some other very specialized part, then there might be another training that’s better. If you’re interested in inclusive excellence and some of the unspoken issues and some of the more challenging social elements that are happening in society today, then it’s a really good place for you to go.
  
Can you elaborate on inclusive excellence?
KM: Inclusive excellence at the university is inclusion of all types of diversity across all aspects of the institution.
Is there anything I didn’t ask you about your HERS experience that you feel we should know?
KM: One of the things that I really liked about the program is that it made a point to say that it’s really easy in academics to get frustrated and get overwhelmed with everything you have to do, but to remember that you come to work, you do your best, and you go home. You’re not supposed to be everything to everybody and you’re not supposed to save the world. You’re supposed to do your job - that reinforcement of: it’s OK if you are sick a day. It’s OK if you don’t apply for every grant. 

The other thing I think we overlook especially as STEM people is that we get really focused on science and then we lose sight of our core values. And are our core values really playing out in our actions with our students, in how we teach, in how we do our research? I was reminded to keep my core values in place so they will help me be a better professor, mentor, and role model.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Joe Sagues and the 2017 ASABE Boyd-Scott Graduate Research Award

Each year at the Annual International Meeting, ASABE recognizes student excellence in the conduct and presentation of research with the Boyd-Scott Graduate Research Award. The competition consists of a written portion and an oral portion. For 2017, UF-ABE’s Joe Sagues, PhD Candidate in Biomass Conversion, placed first in the PhD competition. Fresh off his victory in Spokane, Mr. Sagues agreed to speak with IrriGator about the work he presented in competition and the focus of his current research.

Joe Sagues, PhD Candidate, UF-ABE
What is the focus of your PhD research?
JS: My research is focused on converting agro-industrial residues – low-value, sustainable sources of biomass – into valued products, particularly valuable chemicals. These biomass sources are composed of cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin - 3 different polymers that are interwoven within each other. We’re selectively targeting the lignin, and we’re depolymerizing it into its different monomers. Those monomers have high-value applications in human nutrition. They can be used as anti-oxidants, used in sunscreens, used as food preservatives and things like that.

You mentioned low-value biomass. Can you give us an example?
JS: Sugarcane bagasse in the state of Florida is the most abundant agro-industrial residue. After the sugar and juice is squeezed from the cane you’re left with this fibrous material which is called bagasse and they just burn it right now. Thousands of tons a year burned for heat and power. We’re trying to take that and make something a bit more valuable.
Flashback to the Boyd-Scott Award competition at ASABE AIM - what research did you present in the competition?
JS: I focused on the first project I completed around the end of year one of my PhD, which looked at sweet sorghum bagasse. It’s almost identical to sugarcane bagasse but instead of sugarcane we’re using sweet sorghum. It’s bigger in Louisiana than Florida, but it’s an emerging crop in Florida. We took that bagasse and used ethanol in the supercritical state along with some catalysts to depolymerize the lignin into these various valuable chemicals.

One noteworthy component of this process is that the hemicellulose and cellulose (2 of the 3 polymers that make up the bagasse), they remain untouched during the process so that they can be used for other valuable applications afterwards. One of the big issues with lignin is that when you try to depolymerize the lignin you end up degrading the other two components. We’ve kind of avoided that. The catalyst was an iron catalyst - low cost, abundant, non-toxic.

Does the value of this research lie in the novelty and real world applications?
JS: As of right now what we’re doing is too costly, but the approach is new to bio-refining. The last 15 years or so everyone has been focusing on the cellulose mainly to make ethanol fuels and the lignin has been discarded because it’s just really hard to work with. But we’ve found a way to work with it more easily and in doing so keep the cellulose in pristine form so it can still be converted to ethanol. We’re creating more value from the feedstock.


What can you tell us about the research you’re working on currently?
JS: The project I presented at ASABE taught me the fundamentals of this new approach which we call selective lignin depolymerization. But there were some drawbacks, which I’ve moved past. I’ve modified the process. I’m using a copper catalyst now for various reasons. But I’m still sticking to using ethanol in the supercritical state because that’s kind of the special ingredient. I’m still building upon it. Eventually, the most important part that needs to be done is a techno-economic analysis to really figure out how expensive this process is. It seems like it will be expensive but then again we’re making these valuable products that would otherwise be burned or land-filled.

The format of the student awards at ASABE AIM didn’t really allow for acknowledgements. Who would you have acknowledged given the chance?
JS: Definitely my advisor Dr. Tong because of the freedom she gives me. Most research with lignin has focused on these lignin residues from current bio-refining processing and the pulp and paper industry. They generate massive quantities of lignin. So lots of scientists have focused on how do we create high-value chemicals from this lignin residue? But obviously it hasn’t succeeded because there’s nothing commercial yet - the yields are low, super harsh processes.  I came from a different approach. I want to take the lignin from the whole biomass but keep the cellulose pristine so you can still do what you want with it. At first Dr. Tong was kind of hesitant but then was like just go for it. And it ended up working really well. Aside from my advisor, I’d thank Dr. Haman also, who ultimately gave me the fellowship, which gave me the freedom.
Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you feel our readers should know?
JS: Something people in the biofuel realm, or in the ag and bio realm more broadly, should think about regarding biofuels in my opinion is airplanes and ships. We need to really focus in on those two forms of transportation because light-duty vehicles, even semi-trucks and larger road vehicles will most likely be electric. The technology costs are coming down and there is a lot of momentum right now. I think we’re wasting time making ethanol. Ethanol can only be used in light-duty vehicles. We should be looking at jet fuel and shipping fuel. They may become electric someday but that’s many decades into the future. There’s really not enough sustainable biomass to power the entire light-duty fleet anyway, but there is to power the planes in the sky and the ships in the ocean.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Research and Communications with Dr. Natalie Nelson

One of this summer’s highlights at UF-ABE was celebrating the successful PhD defense of graduate student Natalie Nelson. An NSF Graduate Research Fellow, a U.S. Presidential Management Fellows Program finalist, Dr. Nelson’s accolades go on and on. But we at IrriGator know her as an enthusiastic collaborator whose blog contributions were always illuminating, audience favorites. Before moving on to the next stage in her research career, Dr. Nelson agreed to share some insight about her work, interests, and future endeavors.

Dr. Natalie Nelson of NC State BAE
What was the focus of your graduate studies?
NN: At ABE my studies focused on hydrologic sciences, but then my research was really focused on specifically water quality and more specifically cyanobacteria and phytoplankton in freshwater and brackish systems – using data analytics and models to study long-term monitoring data sets that exist from a few different systems in Florida to try and infer what types of patterns we could detect between these different types of phytoplankton (such as cyanobacteria) and environmental conditions.

Did you always know you were going to pursue a STEM career?
NN: Yes. In high school I remember giving a presentation in my English class explaining that I wanted to be a marine biologist. I’m not sure exactly why I transitioned away from that but I decided that I was really interested in engineering and the applied sciences. It’s kind of interesting to see how things have evolved, where now I’m obviously not a marine biologist but I’ve incorporated some of those interests by focusing on phytoplankton in these estuarine systems but with more of an engineering perspective. I didn’t know that this is where I would end up, but I always was really interested in math and science and I definitely knew I’d be in a STEM field.

You’ve been one of our more popular guest authors on IrriGator, contributing some of the most viewed entries on the blog in 2016. Do you have any tips for graduate students on perfecting writing/ communication skills?
NN: Everything with communication, it takes practice and there are a lot of opportunities that are really easy to access - in terms of different opportunities to present your work in all sorts of different media, whether it be social media or different presentations. There are all these opportunities, but you have to take advantage of them. No one is going to force you into it.
Ultimately, the way in which I’ve been trying to develop my communication skills is just by prioritizing communication and trying to pursue these different opportunities as they arise. So take advantage of opportunities! Don’t let them pass you by. Especially because it does take time so you have to prioritize it. It’s very easy to prioritize research over everything.

You’re active on Twitter. Can you talk about how maintaining this digital presence has been useful to you?
NN: I have learned a lot about various research activities through Twitter that I would not have discovered otherwise. If you’re rather selective in who you choose to follow you can really gain a tremendous amount of information about different initiatives that are being created. Just the other day I learned about this great collaborative research institute that’s being created. It’s right up my alley, so I get to have easy and quick access to this developing group.
In terms of presenting myself and showing some of what I’ve been doing, it’s really easy and very effective. For example, when I posted about the article that I had published in January/February a friend who I know just personally and through courses saw that tweet and then went and looked at the paper and discovered that the method I use was really relevant to what he was working on. Then a bunch of conversations started from there and we’ve been collaborating a bit on a project he’s currently working on. Twitter allows for you to communicate with people quickly and easily who you might not necessarily discuss research with. It has been really practical.

Can you tell us about your new position at North Carolina State University?
NN: I’ve been hired as an assistant professor at NC State to work primarily in research and also in teaching in the area of data analytics and integrated modeling, but as applied to questions that fall within the scope of biological and agricultural engineering. This would span from bio processing to agricultural systems analysis, but then also some of what I’ve done in the past such as water quality evaluations and ecological evaluations. The scope is really broad. The idea with this position is to bring in someone who can work across disciplines within biological and agricultural engineering through the use of a common set of tools such as data analytics and some of these machine learning tools I’ve been using.
In addition, I will also be pursuing projects related to various aspects of estuarine ecology, but from an engineering perspective – looking at how different global and local modes of change might impact estuaries and what does that mean for the people that rely on estuaries.

I’ll be looking for students starting in 2018 so anyone who’s interested in a funded PhD or Masters should contact me!

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Spokane Report Back: ASABE AIM 2017

Last month I attended ASABE’s Annual International Meeting in Spokane, WA. Along with hundreds of students, researchers, and experts, I had the opportunity to catch up with colleagues from around the country and see some of the latest research in ag & bio engineering topics.


ABE and the Future
One of the themes of AIM was what role engineers might play in ensuring a sustainable future for an ever-expanding population and its food, water and energy requirements. World Food Prize Foundation President, and keynote speaker, Dr. Kenneth M. Quinn addressed the concern at length. 
And later a distinguished panel on Opportunities in the Food/Water/Energy Nexus got into specifics about research, policy and collaboration. 
There were hundreds of additional presentations at AIM. Peruse the library of technical papers presented at AIM here.

Accolades for UF
UF ABE was a presence at both the student awards breakfast and the awards luncheon at AIM. Dr. Michael Dukes was formally inducted as an ASABE Fellow. In addition, Dr. Kati Migliaccio was named the G.B. Gunlogson Countryside Engineering Award recipient for 2017. 
Among the students, Biomass Conversion PhD candidate Joe Sagues took first place in the Boyd-Scott Graduate Research Competition. And in the robotics design competition the AggreGators surprised everyone with a 4th place finish among 13 teams.

Stay Tuned
Speaking of robotics, my role at AIM involved both social media and digital media work. Watch for short videos summarizing the student robotics and fountain wars design competitions in the months ahead.